WEBB CITY, Mo. —
By day, it’s a retired antique streetcar.
By night, it’s the Polar Bear Express, taking children and their parents on a magical ride through a twinkling winter wonderland of lights, conjuring up notions of the beloved Christmastime picture book “The Polar Express.”
Or at least that’s what Tom Reeder hopes.
Three years ago, Reeder, Webb City’s director of parks and recreation, began scheduling afternoon trips around King Jack Park in the restored 1894 streetcar each Saturday in December.
That streetcar was in interurban transit service in the Four States until the 1920s. Somehow, it wound up south of Joplin in use as a chicken coop. The Southwest Missouri Electric Railway Association brought it back home to Webb City, restored it, built a barn for it and put it into service on a one-mile track during special events in King Jack Park.
Reeder had visions of turning the streetcar into a major holiday draw not just for local children, but for visitors from throughout the Four State Area.
“We’re trying to bring people to Webb City to see our community, and we believe this is one of our signature events,” Reeder said. “It’s just a unique attribute of having a trolley here.”
But he wanted to add something to the trip, something to make it more magical.
“The first two years we did it, it was in the afternoon and we had volunteers on board to read the ‘Polar Express’ book,” he said. “What ended up happening was the kids spent as much time looking out the window as they did looking at the book. I realized people ride a train for the scenery.
“As we made our last two runs, just as dusk set in, a couple of houses around the track had their Christmas lights on, and I thought, ‘That’s what we should be doing,’” Reeder recalled. “An afternoon trolley ride is a trolley ride. But a trolley ride at night, with Christmas lights, is the Polar Bear Express.”
So this year, after visiting Christmas light displays in Carthage and Monett for inspiration, Reeder moved the start time to after dark, and he added lighted exhibits along the track for the riders to view.
“Except with ours, rather than static displays which limit the life expectancy of a program, we have installed a light show,” Reeder said.
“We have dancing Christmas trees, light towers, and each year we can change it, add to it, so it will never look exactly the same.”
It’s working so far, if attendance is any indication: Last Saturday, the ride sold out, with 396 tickets purchased by 1:30 p.m. Friday.
Despite the inclement weather Saturday afternoon, 301 riders still showed up.
Additional rides are slated for tonight, as well as Saturday, Dec. 17. Trolley trips to be offered tonight are sold out, but tickets for next week will be on sale beginning Monday.
ROOM FOR GROWTH
Reeder said there still is room to grow.
“Eventually, in the vision I have for this program, we will put some light displays back along the roads at the back of the park so that to see the entire program, you’ll have to ride both the express and drive through the park in your car. If ticket sales continue to be good, we might open it up for Friday night rides.”
Riders can expect the ride, which traverses a 1.1 mile track, to take 12 to 15 minutes. Reeder said 36 people can fit on the streetcar on one ride, so the first 36 people to arrive will get their tickets marked “A,” the next 36 will get theirs marked “B,” and so on, so that it is “first come, first served.”
Families may wait their turn in a heated, 60- by 60-foot tent, where hot cocoa will be available as well as word games, crossword puzzles and paper on which to write letters to Santa.
Santa will arrive each day when the event opens at 5:30 p.m., and stay until the last rider is finished about 9 p.m. Parents may bring cameras to take photographs of their children with Santa, and copies of the “Polar Express” book will be available for reading.
“The experience is theirs,” Reeder said. “I want them each to go away with their own experience, whatever they wanted to imagine — whether they were on a train going to grandma’s house, or through an enchanted forest, or on the real Polar Express. That’s our job, is to facilitate that experience.”